Lessons break down barriers

SUMMER JACOBS

Everyone knows a library is more than a building full of books. Besides functioning as a source of information, it’s also a sanctuary where people can escape in their genre of choice.

But for the last 16 years the Milnerton library has also served as a place where people from all over the world gather with one common goal – learning English.

Tabletalk joined one of the three English classes offered at the library in Pienaar Road. Thirteen men and women sit huddled over pages with the day’s lesson. Their scrunched up eyebrows a tell-tale sign of concentration.

At the head of the table stands a tiny-framed woman in her 70s. At first glance, one wonders if she is able to command the class’s attention. However, five minutes into the lesson, it is evident the retired English teacher, Felicity Waddington, has not lost her touch.

Going through a list of words, she becomes animated and goes beyond simply explaining their meaning by using more words: she uses her body to bring “hobble” and “teeter” and her students’ faces light up as they get the meaning.

Keita Mohammed from Ivory Coast scribbles notes on the side of the page. Mr Mohammed has been in South Africa since 1996.

“I was in South Africa on business when my country went through a civil war, and I was not able to return. It was not my intention to stay but I was stuck.”

He has lived in Brooklyn for 12 years and taught himself to speak English by listening to the news and reading. When he didn’t understand a word, he would look it up in the dictionary.

“When you attend these classes, you see how much you still have to learn. You are never too old to learn. Ignorance is a sickness. Mandela said education is a powerful tool,” he said.

Fiorella Angelucci has been coming for lessons for five years and she is more than happy to practice her English by chatting to Tabletalk. She moved to Cape Town in 2008 when her husband started a construction company. Ms Waddington sits patiently helping Ms Angelucci when she struggles or gives her a reassuring look when she sometimes stumbles over some words.

“I come from Abruzzo in Italy. Since I’ve joined this class my English has improved and everyone has noticed how it has improved. I’ve met lots of wonderful people in this class,” said Ms Angelucci.

Ms Waddington says the classes are split into three levels: beginners, intermediate and advanced. They are free, and she only asks for donations because they print a lot of pages for the lessons. She said the initiative started when she taught people from her home to improve their literacy.

“I saw an elderly man who could not read at the ATM. He asked me for help. I was a retired teacher, and I thought I can make myself useful and help people learn to read.”

A year later, they moved to the library and moved from literacy lessons to English lessons as more and more foreigners attended.

One of her proudest moments happened last year when she saw how her teaching had helped improve a student’s life.

“I was in Builders Warehouse, and one of the men came up to me and said, ‘I know you, you taught me’. I didn’t recognise him because I’ve taught so many people over the years, but he told me, ‘It’s because of learning English that I got this job.’ It was nice knowing you have been a benefit to other people.”

Besides Ms Waddington, there are nine other people who volunteer as teachers.

“The most difficult teaching is done at beginner level, where the class is often so large. The learners can barely fit into the classroom. They all have a very limited knowledge of English, and some understand no English at all. The teachers who dedicate their time to tackle this do need special mention. They are Judy Drew, Ilana Sachar, Chris Nelson, Nicola Noland, Karen Goncalves, Jenny Macdonald, Eileen Birkinshaw and Priscilla Dindar plus three new volunteers,” she said.

* For more information about the English programme call Felicity Waddington at 021 552 6686 or 072 419 9226.